SAN DIEGO – Mario Fierro was “all in” to his students, his players and his faith.
That’s how colleagues described his approach to life.
Although he died Feb. 1, the victim of a homicide, the beloved teacher and coach lives on in the memories of colleagues and students at Cathedral Catholic High School.
The death rocked San Diego’s Catholic community, particularly high school students and staff members, who struggled to understand the tragedy.
Those who knew the 37-year-old well paint a portrait of an educator with a tremendous work ethic and an even bigger heart.
“Mario was ‘all in’ on life, and he lived a short life but he lived a great life,” said Cathedral Catholic Principal Kevin Calkins, who hired Fierro as a social studies teacher in 2016.
“He cares – truly cares – about everybody he comes in contact with,” said Head Football Coach Sean Doyle, whom Fierro served as an assistant coach. “He enjoys life, he enjoys what he does, and he enjoys it to the fullest. He does not do anything halfway.”
At the start of the school year, Fierro already had a full load of five classes, but that didn’t stop him from volunteering to teach a sixth, Calkins recalled. If that weren’t enough, about a month before his death, Fierro offered to pick up another class when it was announced that a colleague was taking an extended, health-related leave of absence.
“That would’ve meant Mario would’ve never had a break during a school day,” said Calkins, who had Fierro stick with six classes. “He was willing to teach every single period every single day.”
Calkins also recalled Fierro’s habit of popping into the principal’s office before heading home for the day, checking in to see how he was doing and asking if he needed help with anything.
He was also the athletic director for Notre Dame Academy, a neighboring Catholic elementary school.
John Montali, a science teacher and a football coach at Cathedral Catholic, came to know Fierro as “not just a colleague but a friend.”
Living close to one another, Montali sometimes would prevail upon Fierro for a ride to work.
“There was never a hesitation,” he said. “I mean, [he was] just a guy that’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Fierro was fatally shot outside his North Park home, dying at the scene. The ex-boyfriend of Fierro’s fiancée was later arrested and has been charged with the murder. Last December, Fierro had become engaged to one of his fellow teachers at Cathedral Catholic.
Montali said that Fierro’s death in such a violent manner was a sad irony because his late friend was “a peacemaker” by nature. He noted that Fierro had the ability to speak to all sorts of people about subjects like politics, religion and sports – “all of those kinds of topics that tend to raise people’s ire” – in a way that didn’t lead to heated disagreements.
A 2002 graduate of University of San Diego High School, which three years later transitioned into the present-day Cathedral Catholic, Fierro was a committed Catholic. His friends noted his affinity for the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass at St. Anne Parish in Logan Heights.
In the classroom and at athletic events, he seemed to have boundless energy.
Calkins recalled that he was constantly on the move, walking back and forth as he delivered his class lectures.
Fierro served as assistant coach for track-and-field for about 10 years, until about three years ago, when he decided to focus more on coaching football, said Dan Geiger, a math teacher and track-and-field coach at Cathedral Catholic.
He described Fierro as “so into coaching” that when his athletes were running the 2-mile at a track meet, “he probably ran close to 2 miles himself, just running around the track and cheering them on.”
“It was just one of those funny things, watching a coach almost act like a little kid because he was so enthusiastic about the performance of his athletes,” said Geiger, who like Montali had been one of Fierro’s own coaches in high school.
Geiger also recalls how, in 2010, when two recent Cathedral Catholic graduates and former track team members died in an automobile accident, Fierro helped team members process their grief.
In the wake of Fierro’s death, Geiger said he met with that same group of former athletes, “and now they’re dealing with a second tragedy.”
Linebacker Tano Letuli, a Cathedral Catholic junior, reflected on the influence that Fierro has had on him.
“Sometimes, I’d come to practice frustrated or I’d start complaining about … just silly things from school,” he said, and Fierro would be there to encourage him to stay positive and to work hard.
Describing Fierro as a teacher who “truly cared for each and every one of us,” Letuli remembers an occasion last year when he and his classmates demonstrated that the feeling was mutual by decorating Fierro’s classroom with balloons and streamers as a birthday surprise.
When Fierro arrived, he recalled, the teacher had to balance the fact that the students had violated a school rule by entering the classroom before their teacher and his personal happiness at their display of appreciation.
Last April, when defensive lineman and Cathedral Catholic junior Jaxson Moi received his first scholarship offer, Fierro was one of the first people with whom he shared the good news.
Moi recalls that, while Fierro expressed his pride at his achievement, he also “kept it real with me.”
“He told me to always remain humble, never be complacent, and with all the great things that come in your life, always give the glory to God,” he said. “That was just the type of person that Coach Fierro was.”
The following scholarship and funds have been set up in Fierro’s honor:
Mario Fierro Memorial Scholarship Fund
Catholic Community Foundation
Larry Himmel Neighborhood Foundation